12 Years a Slave is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and forced into slavery for over a decade. This moving story was adapted for the screen by John Ridley and the movie was directed by Steve McQueen. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, and Brad Pitt lead a cast jam packed with Hollywood heavyweights.
Solomon Northup has lived the life of a free man with his wife and two children in upstate New York, but when an opportunity to achieve his dreams takes a nightmarish turn, his entire world comes crashing down around him. After a celebratory night ends with too much alcohol being consumed, Mr. Northup wakes up with more than a hangover. In fact, his eyes open to reveal himself chained at the wrists and ankles and locked in a dark, wet room that is completely silent until another man enters the room and begins a long, slow, and extremely painful process of turning a gentleman into a slave.
After the processing of Northup is complete, he is given the new name of Platt and sold into the slave trade along with several other kidnapping victims. Northup soon learns how to stay under the radar by not revealing how educated he really is or that he once led a life equal or better to those who literally hold his life in their hands. Doing what he can to survive while never giving up on trying to live, Platt is constantly looking for a way to get back home to a family who has no idea what might have happened to him. The only thing keeping him from succumbing to this life of servitude is the hope and expectation that he will see them again some day...no matter what it takes.
If you don't know who director Steve McQueen is, I would highly encourage you to check out Shame and Hunger which are the other two feature films he has created along with actor Michael Fassbender. Both of these movies are brutally honest portrayals of subjects that, in lesser hands, would fall far short of what he is able to achieve. 12 Years a Slave is a natural progression into larger scale features and a lot of the Oscar buzz this film is getting is a direct result of McQueen's ability to craft a story that can leave you exhausted from its emotional power.
McQueen also does a masterful job of handling the non stop parade of acting talent that, at times, literally wanders in and out of the story and he has a way of presenting characters that you can immediately identify as either positive or negative forces in the story. The one drawback to this is that, other than Mr. Northup, I never felt totally connected to or engaged with any of the rest of the characters in the story. This one shortcoming is really the only downside to telling a story that spans so much time and involves so many different people and places to keep track of although it is an important one.
That being said, we do get top notch performances from the principle cast members including Ejiofor as Northup, Fassbender and Cumberbatch as plantation owners Edwin Epps and Mr. Ford respectively along with what could be considered an amazing debut performance by Ms. Lupita Nyong'o who plays a slave to and love interest of Mr. Epps. There was so much talent and emotion poured into these performances alone, seeing these four people on screen is worth the price of admission alone.
In some respects, 12 Years a Slave is not an easy movie to watch as the scenes depicting both physical and mental torture are, I'm assuming, very realistically portrayed. The only Hollywood magic you will find is the type that allows the director to dig deep into the source material and Steve McQueen is no slouch when it comes to making that happen. For everything this movie has going for it, it was still missing a few key ingredients that might otherwise place it into that rare, upper echelon of truly great films. That being said, this is still a very important story that everyone should take the opportunity to see.